domingo, 10 de marzo de 2019

Zone

Zone (Actes Sud, 2015)
by Mathias Enard
France, 2008

As in a spy novel updated to reflect some of the more unpleasant aspects of our post-9/11 reality, Francis Servain Mirković is a half French/half Croatian secret service functionary en route from Milan to Rome with a suitcase full of top secret dossiers and a murky past of his own in tow. Aboard the train, addled by drink and amphetamines and possibly on the verge of cracking up due to a lifetime spent both furthering and documenting dirty tricks from one end of the Mediterranean to another, his story about work and play in the Zone comes gushing out in a 500-plus page torrent of internal monologue and guilt-wracked memories only two or three times interrupted by scenes from the novel about the Intifada he's reading.  Despite the hype Zone's received even from people whose tastes I trust, I wasn't quite prepared for how phenomenal its one sentence + digressions would be.  In part a riff on the Iliad but with the Battle of Lepanto, the Nazi concentration camps, the French-Algerian conflict, and the Bosnian war among the main substitution sites for the clash taking place at "Ilion la bien gardée" ["well-defended Ilion"] (152), the novel's bold enough in its guise as a 21st century song of wrath to make liberal use of Homeric epithets (cf. the Berbers as "dompteurs de cavales" ["tamers of horses"] on p. 162 and "l'Hadès grand mangeur de guerriers" ["Hades, great devourer of warriors"] on p. 416) in anachronistic homage to its oral literature urtext (Pound's Cantos are another source of inspiration).  Similarly, Enard's prose often struck me as unabashedly poetic in nature despite the horrors Mirković's monologue evokes.  You can sense it and sometimes even hear it in the compressed wordplay (cf. "en Sicile île mortelle" [literally "on Sicily, deadly island"] on p. 169 and "la Méditerranée, le cimetière bleu" ["the Mediterranean, the blue cemetery"] on p. 283), but you don't exactly half to will yourself to "see" it as well in Mirković's vivid dreamscape of suicide bombers, where "ces petits Christs solaires" ["these little solar Christs"] in the form of severed heads launched into the air due to the force of the martyrdom explosions, are imagined contemplating Jerusalem one last time from on high before leaving this world for the next  (201-202 & 462).  How to make sense of a narrator that celebrates John of Patmos as the "premier romancier de la fin du monde" ["first novelist of the end of the world"] (249) and a novel which itself expends hundreds of pages reminding us that war is the natural state of man are probably acts best left to the individual reader.  For my part, I enjoyed the Life a User's Manual- and The Savage Detectives-like giddiness of Enard's storytelling even if one of Zone's lasting messages--that, for somebody or other, right or wrong,  "il y a toujours des Carthages à détruire" ["there are always Carthages to destroy"] (107)--is perhaps less enjoyable or giddy as a thematic takeaway through no fault of Enard's.  Whatever,  a real feat.

Mathias Enard

martes, 5 de marzo de 2019

The Balkan Trilogy: 1, The Great Fortune

The Balkan Trilogy: 1, The Great Fortune (NYRB Classics, 2010)
by Olivia Manning
England, 1960

"All I have is here," newlywed Harriet Pringle says of British expat life with her husband Guy, stateless freeloader Yakimov, and assorted displaced malcontents in faraway Bucharest, a problem since the storm clouds of what will soon become World War II are increasingly threatening the then neutral Romania with just what it means to be "a peaceful nation in someone else's war" (267 & 235).  That heavy duty geopolitical backdrop notwithstanding, I really enjoyed this first foray into Manning's The Balkan Trilogy and the first of six volumes in her Fortunes of War double trilogy.  On the most superficial level, I was pleased to discover that Manning's something of a Muriel Spark-like savage charmer on the observational front--perceptive in painting sympathetic but conflicted Harriet into something of a haves and have nots corner during an early run-in with some child beggars ("The children clung like lice.  They caught hold of her arms, their faces screwed into the classical mask of misery while they whined and whimpered in chorus" [122]) but also completely unremorseful in alluding to a poverty-stricken local dressmaker as "a tiny creature, very thin, smelling of mouldy bread.  Her face, which had one cheek full and one caught-in like a deformed apple, was dark yellow and heavily moustached" out of sheer descriptive malice elsewhere (262).  More significantly,  although somewhat related to this, I appreciated the fact that Manning's a bit of a slippery character when it comes to narrative POV.  If it wasn't always clear to me how much those sort of class-conscious sentiments were hers rather than her roman à clef characters', I'm willing to chalk that up to nuance in a novel which grapples with condescension to the Romanians on the part of the international community and the prejudice of the rich against the poor among all but one or two of the more idealistic characters regardless of nationality.  One of The Great Fortune's successes or at least one of the more ironic examples of Manning's sleight of hand, in fact, is how long the novel seems to side with the expat community in focusing on its fear about "the disintegration of their adopted world" (259) even while the disintegration of that same world has been hiding in plain sight all along for the Jews who have been hauled into jail on trumped-up charges and the poor freezing to death in bunches every time winter rolls around.  In short, a lively, fast-paced read but also "a cheap holiday in other people's misery" as some other blokes might have it.

Olivia Manning (1908-1980) in 1955

jueves, 7 de febrero de 2019

Poema de Fernán González


Poema de Fernán González (Editorial Castalia, 1993)
Anónimo
Castilla, c. 1250

En el nombre del Padre, autor de toda cosa,
y en el del que nació de la Virgen preciosa,
y en el del Santo Espíritu, que a la par de ellos posa,
del Conde de Castilla quiero hacer una prosa.
(Poema de Fernán González 1)

Un poema épico, compuesto hacia 1250 con rimas "a sílabas contadas" en el estilo del llamado Mester de Clerecía, sobre las hazañas de Fernán González, un conde de Castilla de carne y hueso del siglo X.  A pesar de versar con una u otra escenas sobrenaturales en la tradición de los romances populares, el poeta parece adentrarse más en el mundo histórico y menos en el mundo imaginativo como se puede ver en el principio sobre los orígenes de Castilla en el que hay varias estrofas dedicadas a la llegada de los godos en España y a su eventual conversión al cristianismo.  Esta tensión entre el contenido histórico y el épico se observa a lo largo del poema y es uno de sus rasgos esenciales.  A diferencia de la Chanson de Roland francesca, por ejemplo, el Poema de Fernán González habla de dos derrotas de Carlomagno en España a las manos de los españoles (véanse estrofas 134 y 144) al mismo tiempo que Carlomagno y Roldán y Olivero figuran entre una lista de celebres guerreros históricos y legendarios que también incluye Alejandro, Baldovinos, y "el rey David que mató a Golías" (357-358).  Este vaivén entre el realismo y lo legendario también se nota en las descripciones aplicadas a cristianos y moros donde hay una mezcla de generalidades y especificidad en cuanto a los musulmanes.  El conde del poema, como un líder de "los cruzados" (79) y "esa gente cruzada" (470) es por supuesto retratado propagandisticamente como un "vasallo" del "alto Criador": "tú eres su vasallo y él es tu Señor" (412).  Los enemigos, por su parte, son llamados "los pueblos paganos" (142), "los pueblos renegados" (205) y, más específicamente en cuanto al registro histórico, "los almohades y los benemerinos" (390) y "las huestes africanas" (566) durante la lucha entre los castellanos y las fuerzas de Almanzor.  Si el Poema de Fernán González no tiene la vitalidad de o el Cantar de Mio Cid o la Chanson de Roland, ya tiene sus momentos; me gustaron la imagen de la toma de España  evocada por los versos "España la gentil fue luego destruída; era señora de ella la gente descreída" (89) y el colorido del poeta al describir los moros de Almanzor como  "mas feos que Satán con todo su convento/al salir del infierno sucio y carboniento" (391).  La rima de éste compensa el prejuicio de la época tal vez.

El único manuscrito del Poema de Fernán González

domingo, 27 de enero de 2019

Riders of the Purple Sage


Riders of the Purple Sage (Barnes & Noble, 2004)
by Zane Grey
USA, 1912

Super famous but thoroughly hack western which, despite being intermittently entertaining in spite of itself, might be most "memorable" for the virulence of its anti-Mormon themes and for the fact that Indians are mentioned a million times in the course of the novel without ever once making a non-figurative appearance within its pages.  Weird!  Given that Riders is set in southern Utah in the 1870s, the narrative's obsession with Native Americans but only with Native Americans who are always offscreen struck me as much more mystifying than either the hackery or the religious intolerance.  I mean, even if some of the native "presence" conjured up by and apparently significant to Grey--the references to kivas and the vanished cliff-dwellers of bygone times, for example--is clearly attributable to the demands of landscape and plot, what are we to make of the profusion of "good" ("Little Fay there--she sees things as they appear on the face.  An Indian does that.  So does a dog.  An' an Indian an' a dog are most of the time right in what they see.  Mebbe a child is always right") (228), bad ("Then it was that Venters' primitive, childlike mood, like a savage's, seeing yet unthinking, gave way to the encroachment of civilized thought") (153) and indifferent ("My father got his best strain [of horses] in Nevada from Indians who claimed their horses were bred down from the original stock left by the Spaniards") (28) allusions to Indians when Indian characters are otherwise entirely whitewashed from the text (that last allusion being the closest thing to a possible exception)?  Was this a genre thing--giving readers what somebody thought they wanted, cowboys and Indians in absentia if you would?  Whatever, kind of a strange choice to wind up as "the most popular western novel of all time" although granted Grey's dual love stories, creaky, pulp plot shenanigans about masked riders and hidden valleys, and awkwardly earnest prose ("He saw destiny in the dark, straight path of her wonderful eyes" [117]) naturally just might strike a more Proustian chord with you than they did with me.  Then again, maybe not!

Zane and Dolly Grey, c. 1906

domingo, 2 de septiembre de 2018

Spanish and Portuguese Lit Months 2018: 8/26-8/31 Links


With Spanish and Portuguese Lit Months 2018 now over, I'd like to thank everybody who helped make it happen this year and to thank Stu for letting me co-host it with him again.  I had a lot of fun and hope you all found something of interest--a new blog, a great book, whatever--along the way as well.  Anyway, here's the last week's worth of links generated by the event.  On a related note, I'll be running a month-long version of the Argentinean Literature of Doom in December this year if anybody cares to join me for some end of the year gnashing of teeth.  Stay tuned for further details eventually and/or check out last year's welcome post here if you have no idea what I'm talking about.  Cheers.

Agnese, Beyond the Epilogue
The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza

David Hebblethwaite, David's Book World
Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo

Joseph Screiber, roughghosts

Juliana Brina, the [blank] garden
Hilda Hilst (profile and bibliography)
Because there is desire within me, everything glimmers (poems by Hilda Hilst)

lizzysiddal, Lizzy's Literary Life
#edbookfest 2018: Teresa Solana

Paul, By the Firelight
Largo noviembre de Madrid (Madrid's Long November) by Juan Edwardo Zúñiga

Richard, Caravana de recuerdos
"Mimoso" by Silvina Ocampo

Scott, seraillon

viernes, 31 de agosto de 2018

Mimoso

"Mimoso"
by Silvina Ocampo
Argentina, 1959

Alfajores Havanna or Cachafaz?*  Whatever, it's now time for the dessert & coffee portion of Spanish and Portuguese Lit Months 2018 at long last!  "Mimoso" ["Affectionate"], a four page-long morsel from "Silvina is a Borges" Ocampo's 1959 La furia which brings unwanted attention to that previously innocent term "animal lover," is the giddily effed-up taste treat in question--a morally dubious tale about a woman who so loves her dog Mimoso that she decides to embalm him after his passing only to eventually arouse the suspicions of her neighbors.  Ocampo's peculiar sense of humor is clearly the dulce de leche filling of our alfajor argentino with the cookie-like descriptions of 1) the pet owner Mercedes--"Con su tejido en la mano esperaba como Penélope, tejiendo, la llegada del perro embalsado" ["With her fabric in hand, she awaited the arrival of the embalmed dog like Penelope, weaving away"]; 2) the now glass-eyed Mimoso himself--"Nunca había parecido de mejor salud...lo único que le faltaba era hablar" ["He had never seemed in better health...the only thing that was lacking was that he couldn't talk"]; 3) and in particular Mercedes' reaction to the new and improved, "bien peinado y lustroso" ["well-groomed and shiny"] post-embalming Mimoso--"Ese perro muerto la acompañaría como la había acompañado el mismo perro vivo, la defendería de los ladrones y de la soledad.  Le acarició la cabeza con la punta de los dedos y cuando creyó que el marido no la miraba, le dio un beso furtivo" ["That dead dog would accompany her just as the same dog had done in life, he'd defend her from thieves and loneliness.  She stroked his head with the tips of her fingers, and when she thought her husband wasn't looking, she gave Mimoso a furtive kiss"]--all leading to uncomfortable laughter.  To help wash this all down, I will avoid all mention of the gross-out ending and will instead propose a lágrima** for all #Spanishandportugueselitmonths readers who are so inclined in honor of one Jorge Luis Borges' almost tearful response to this story: "Borges lo odiaba" ["Borges hated it"], Mariana Enriquez writes in her recent must read Ocampo bio, "siempre le pedía a Silvina que no lo incluyera en sus recopilaciones" ["he would always ask Silvina to leave it out of her anthologies"].  Mmm, alfajores.

*The correct answer, of course, is "both!"
**If curious, please see "A Buenos Aires Coffee Guide (with pictures)" for a handy primer.  Nature of primer: thirst-inducing.

Source
"Mimoso" appears on pages 197-200 of Silvina Ocampo's
Cuentos completos I (Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores, 1999).  Author photo: Sara Facio.

domingo, 26 de agosto de 2018

Spanish and Portuguese Lit Months 2018: 8/19-8/25 Links

Juan Carlos Onetti

Grant, 1streading's Blog
Older Brother by Daniel Mella

Juliana, the [blank] graden
Ana Cristina César (profile and bibliography)
To confront desire (poems by Ana Cristina César)
Victor Heringer (profile and bibliography)
The first tear opened up that day (on O amor dos homens avulsos by Victor Heringer)
Ricardo Domeneck (profile and bibliography)
May it sting me until it extinguishes me (poems by Ricardo Domeneck)

Richard, Caravana de recuerdos
"Felisberto, el 'Naïf'" by Juan Carlos Onetti

Rise, in lieu of a field guide
"The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader" by Jorge Luis Borges